Early photographers – Brady and Stieglitz both come to mind, but there were literally dozens of others – were on one hand liberated by the fact that they were working in a new medium, but on the other somewhat constrained by the limits of the equipment they were using. The older cameras and film processes were as fickle as they were time-consuming, and would not yet give the speed and mobility that later photographers would use to such great advantage. Early photography, therefore, tended to be influenced more than a bit by the other visual arts that existed at the time (especially painting). As time passed and photography evolved, it began to engage in a dialogue of sorts with painting (Chuck Close comes to mind as someone whose style practically anticipated digital photography) and the motion picture (witness Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential photos of dogs, horses, and people that attempted to capture a sense of motion long before movies were a commonplace).
As photographers we’re faced with a similar opportunity. While it’s vital that we know the works of photographers we admire (inspiration has to start somewhere) and those we dislike (since it’s equally useful to know what kind of photographer you’d prefer not to be, or the “mistakes” you’d rather not make), it helps to step outside ourselves and our craft from time to time in order to see what’s going on elsewhere, whether that somewhere else is music, sculpture, or even carpentry. Seeing the choices someone else makes to practice their craft and to realize the finished product shows the creative process in a new light, and gives us the means, sometimes, to explain our own craft to ourselves.
Of course, couched in that opportunity is a singular dilemma. We live in a time when it’s possible to have access, at relatively little cost, to more cultural output than ever before; we similarly live in a time when the means of producing and disseminating these artifacts is easier than ever, meaning that we’ll soon reach a point where these artifacts multiply exponentially, making it even more impossible to keep up with what’s being produced as it is to somehow catch up on all of what’s already been done. Find your own inspiration and build your own canon, tracing and building your own artistic lineage like a made-to-order family tree; after all, one of the best parts of creativity is choosing your lineage, and deciding where you will take it next.
From time to time in the weeks ahead, I will be profiling artists outside of photography who I think have something to say to us as photographers, sometimes highlighting parallels with photographers doing similar work. As with any other “list” (albeit one that will unfold, as it were, in slow motion), it’s highly subjective. By no means am I suggesting that you like the same people, or draw the same lessons from them that I did. You may choose to draw the same lessons from different artists, different lessons from the same artists, or you may just say the hell with it and learn something else from someone else altogether. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter which of those categories you fall into; what’s important is that you should be willing to engage, and learn from, others both in and out of photography who have something to say.
While it’s got nothing on painting, sculpture, or music, which have been practiced for tens of thousands of years, photography nonetheless has quite a history and heritage behind it. Part of our literacy as photographers – part of the visual vocabulary and syntax we employ every time we compose a shot and press the shutter – necessarily includes knowing at least some of that history. But part of our education also needs to come from outside photography. Just as we, as individuals, don’t evolve in a vacuum, neither has the craft of photography, or the art that’s evolved from it. There’s a sense of communication and community that takes place across different media that informs all that we do. The arts – all of them – give us so much. At different times, or sometimes all at once, they tell us about ourselves and our creativity, as well as providing us with context, inspiration, and instruction. About all they ask in return is that we pay attention, and remember.